The Gaslight Anthem caught most of our collective attention and many of our hearts with The ’59 Sound. The record was a definitive statement, a rallying point for listeners who had also expanded their music taste past punk and indie to discover the melancholy pleasures of early Counting Crows and the storytelling of Bruce Springsteen. It’s the kind of record you make when you’re in your 20s, or you never make at all, and while many of those don’t pan out, The ’59 Sound soars.
So when your music catches the attention of the Boss himself, what do you do for an encore?
American Slang attempted to stretch a little without sacrificing what made its predecessor so satisfying and mostly succeeded. Songs like “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”, with that gorgeous bridge, showed a band that understood how to make subtle updates to their sound without alienating fans. With Handwritten, the Gaslight Anthem stayed idle just a little too long, delivering a song cycle with a couple of standout tracks and a lot of familiar ground being tread. Get Hurt was a misstep with a bloated runtime as they took a big swing trying new sounds. After that, the band took a break, and Fallon recorded some solo records that leaned into a less aggressive, at times even soulful, sound.
The Gaslight Anthem’s first album in almost ten years, History Books, is a concise ten-track statement release that aims to recapture the sound of their most successful outings. It was produced by Peter Katis, who has worked with PUP (Stefan Babcock drops in here for a guest vocal), the National, Interpol, and Frightened Rabbit. The production suits the proceedings; it is big but not flashy, not the glow-up he did with PUP on their last record. Katis is the right choice to helm a song cycle of introspection, and he knows when to add a little and when to step back and let the group cook.
In a recent interview with Kerrang, singer Brian Fallon called “Positive Charge” a letter to the fans and his bandmates. The lead single from History Books set expectations high. This is the Fallon many of us fell so hard for, the one who balances the right amount of detail and stays on the right side of cliche. He describes himself as “dressing up for a coffin to lie down in” and most poignantly sums up struggling with depression: “It’s hard to know when your mind declares a war on you.” The final lines of the song feel earned and will produce some lumps in throats (sure did for me). The Gaslight Anthem rip through the song like it’s the last time they’ll play together, and that energy is what made their best work impossible to resist.
“Spider Bites” kicks off the record with a surprising, Rolling Stones-esque intro before setting into a more familiar sound that announces that this will be more Handwritten than Get Hurt. In its best moments, “Spider Bites” recalls that mix of melancholy and energy that their most potent songs contain, but the lyrics only muster up one memorable line (“I’ll love you forever ’til the day that I don’t”).
Springsteen takes the second verse on the title track, which starts out possibly about the state of the world but seems to be more about examining Fallon’s personal history. Fifteen years after The ’59 Sound, his songs are about taking stock now. Classic cars and girls picking young boys from their claws have been set aside in favor of introspection. He has been upfront about spending time dealing with personal matters, and that is the focus of his lyrics this time out. His faith is also evident in several of the new songs, and he thanks Jesus first in the liner notes. Springsteen’s influence is felt in “Empires”, which recalls his Tunnel of Love era, and “Autumn” has a gospel-infused chorus.
But while Fallon seems to have genuinely come out on the other side better, and that is a great thing to see, he is less adept at making that struggle come alive than he was on earlier records. “Michigan 1975” is a new type of ballad, with a longing arrangement and another shade of Fallon’s range. However, the lyrics seem like Fallon is stretching for a Matt Berninger-esque snapshot, and the title is distracting on a record that’s mostly about recent struggles. It nearly makes the song seem out of place here.
It’s easy to recognize that the Gaslight Anthem ordered the songs in a similar fashion to The ’59 Sound, and the press kit for the new record references it, too, but that triumph is hard to recapture. The back end of History Books has a little less energy and a little less of that specificity that marks Fallon’s best lyrics. “Little Fires” rekindles the “’08 sound”. Songs like “The Weatherman” and “I Live in the Room Above” might not be the worst the band has to offer, but they lack that gut punch or energy jolt that they have been capable of in the past.
Closer “A Lifetime of Preludes” weds the lyrical content of The ’59 Sound tracks “Meet Me by the River’s Edge” and the more reflective sounds of “Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid”. Years ago, those tracks were a fiery resolution to leave the past behind, like many great Springsteen songs, followed by a wistful recollection of loves lost. Years later, the narrator is wiser and jaded. It’s an intriguing contrast for fans and yet another example of the care that has gone into this reboot.
Longtime fans will probably find plenty to like, even love, about History Books. The Gaslight Anthem are in fine form; Fallon’s still a charismatic singer, and he still shows flashes of brilliance in his lyrics. It will be interesting to see where they go from this collection that shows they still know how to do what they do best.